Very Little Saigon Served
A repetitious restaurant scene can only lead to repetitious reviews. I repeat: No, I'll clarify: From the exterior it looks like a corner coffee shop, just the sort of humble, low-key space that hints at unpretentious home-cooked food -- in this case, Vietnamese-style. Indeed that's just what the friendly folks at Little Saigon serve, but as is so often the case across the languid landscape of our local eateries, they do so in a gentrified, unambitious fashion. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had been a Miami restaurateur, we'd probably be recalling his "I have a very, very, small dream" speech.
Little Saigon City opened in Coral Gables about six months ago and isn't so much gentrified as China-fied. Soups, for instance, are "Vietnamese hot and sour" and "egg flower." You probably won't encounter these while dining in Da Nang, but every Chinese restaurant in America serves them (although Little Saigon's renditions consist of a thinner, less cornstarch-gloppy broth). A dozen Chinese dinners are also listed on the menu (with a choice of one of those "Vietnamese" soups, the egg flower under its Chinese egg drop alias). North Vietnam absorbed China's culinary influences long ago, but the Chinese food here does little but distract from the superior Vietnamese dishes.
Ironically, most of Little Saigon City's specialties derive from northern Vietnam. Chao tom, which is minced shrimp meat cooked on sugar cane skewers, is an exception. In Ho Chi Minh City the toms are usually grilled, but here the fingers of shrimp paste are breaded and cleanly fried -- appetizing but so fluffed with sweet filler that it tasted like chicken. Plump "Vietnamese chicken wings" likewise exuded chicken flavor but were glazed in an innocuous sweet-and-sour sauce that seemed imported from Hong Kong. Egg rolls and spring rolls round out the starters, the latter filled with chicken, shrimp, or tofu. We sampled the chicken version, shredded white meat and soft vermicelli noodles wrapped in mint and lettuce leaves in turn wrapped in rice paper. "Carrot sauce," an Americanized name for the fish sauce-based condiment nuoc cham (with shredded carrots added), serves as a dip for this and numerous other items.
The typical Vietnamese diet consists of 70 to 80 percent carbs -- meaning rice and noodles. The menu here is accordingly categorized into bowls of broth based with rice noodles (pho), bowls of varied ingredients tossed with thin rice vermicelli (bun), and rice plates of chicken, pork, or shrimp (com dia). Our favorite was pho, a street-food from Hanoi. More specifically, pho tai chin, a bowl of sparkling star anise-seeped beef broth bursting with broad rice noodles; thin, tender slices of eye round steak; and lean brisket, green onions, bean sprouts, jalapeños, ginger, basil, and cilantro. Hot-sour condiments of hoisin sauce, red chili sauce, and lime arrive on the side, to be added in judicious fashion. With its tangle of tastes and textures, this dish comes closest to the delicate yin-yang contrasts of Vietnamese cooking. At $8.95, it's also the best deal on a menu brimming with bargains (the most expensive item is only $11.95).
Bun thit nuong cha gio translated into another satisfying bowl of food: wispy strands of rice noodle topped with tenderly grilled ribbons of pork and cylinders of fried egg roll. The room-temperature dish also contains snippets of lettuce, cucumbers, carrots, bean sprouts, minced peanuts, and cilantro, and is traditionally doused in chili-peppered nuoc cham; Little Saigon withholds the heat and timidly tenders only another side dish of carrot sauce. Vegetarians will likely relish the tofu-based bun, but other than this and a tofu spring roll starter, the meatless pickings are slim.
Skip the "Saigon diced garlic chicken," listed as one of two house specialties. (The other is a bird's nest of mixed seafood napped with brown sauce.) A chili pepper symbol on the menu is meant to denote a fiery nature, but the Chinese hot-and-sour sauce bathing the bird sang only sweet notes -- with a weak garlic harmony. Worse, the small nibblets of chicken were tough, dry, and as hard to swallow as the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Steamed carrots, broccoli, mushrooms, and snow peas were served on the side, along with "pasta" that looked and tasted just like overcooked spaghetti.
An old Vietnamese saying explains the relationship between the country's two staple starches: "The wife is plain rice, and the girlfriend is noodle soup. The wife must feed her husband rice three times a day so he doesn't go out for noodles." If the wife serves anything resembling Little Saigon's "Vietnamese fried rice," chances are pretty good her husband has already left the building. At first glance you might think it's exactly like Chinese fried rice, but there are a couple of subtle differences: This one is called "Vietnamese," and it's blander than the Chinese version. The choice of main ingredient is either vegetables, shrimp, chicken, or beef. We tried all of the above in a dish called "Little Saigon City fried rice," whose meats and shrimp were dry; rice base was dotted only with onions, carrots, and peas; and dominant flavor was soy sauce.
A rice plate called com suon nuong, however, was delicious enough to forever end a wife's worrying over unfaithful noodling. The grain itself was white and steamed, but three pork cutlets, taken from the chop, were succulently grilled and imbued with a sweet, piney lemongrass flavor.
Desserts are a trip, particularly the one with psychedelic green gelatin noodles, yellow squares of mung bean curd, tapioca pearls, coconut milk, and crushed ice. The texturally squeamish might be less than appreciative, but everyone else should find this an exceedingly refreshing finish to their meal -- topped off of course with potent, chicory-enhanced iced Vietnamese coffee sweetened with condensed milk.
I'm tempted to say this restaurant isn't half bad, but in fact that's exactly what it is -- the bad half being Chinese dishes in Viet camouflage. Stick to the buns, phos, spring rolls, and desserts, and Little Saigon City won't let you down.
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